As the marchers neared the corner of West Harden and North Main streets in downtown Graham, the Rev. Greg Drumwright asked them to put their fists in the air.
“Don’t you worry about no counter-protesters,” he said. “You keep your mind on the legacy of Mr. Outlaw and all the people that died so that we could stand up.”
Invoking the name of Wyatt Outlaw — a Black constable and town commissioner who was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan at the county courthouse where a Confederate monument stands today — Drumwright led 600 marchers down Main Street to the mournful strains of gospel great Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World.” As they approached Court Square, they were met by more than 50 jeering neo-Confederate protesters awaited them.
Once he reached the small stage in front of the Confederate monument, where roughly 90 antiracists were already assembled, Drumwright asked the antiracist protesters to turn their backs on the counter-protesters, who waved Confederate and Gadsden flags and included members of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC and League of the South, the latter a white supremacist group that marched in Charlottesville. Some among the multigenerational crowd wore Hawaiian shirts, associated with the boogaloo movement — a whimsical code for anticipating civil war — and skull masks.
“Can I get you to lift your voice and turn your back and send a message to Graham, North Carolina?” Drumwright asked. “You tried to scare us. You tried to shut us down. You tried to say that we had guns. You tried to call us a hate organization. But we come in love. We come in peace. But one thing we didn’t come here [in] is silence, because silence is violence. Open your mouth today. Black lives matter!”
On Friday, the mayor of Graham had declared a state of emergency, which was ambiguously worded to indicate that access would be restricted to a six-block area around the monument and Historical Courthouse at the culmination of the march. Although an open letter from the police department to the community referencing “a planned march and demonstration in the downtown business district” indicated that the police would accommodate the march rather than block the marchers’ path, Drumwright said in an interview with Triad City Beat that police officials abruptly canceled a meeting with him that was supposed to take place at 3 p.m. the day before, so that he was unable to gain clarification on their plans.
On Monday, a federal judge had entered a temporary restraining order with the consent of the mayor, city council and police department ordering the police to suspend enforcement of the city’s restrictive protest ordinance. The lawsuit filed by the ACLU of North Carolina on behalf Drumwright and other plaintiffs noted that Mayor Jerry Peterman had previously issued a series of state of emergency declarations, including one on June 27 that “completely suspended individuals’ rights to free movement, assembly and speech.”
Local neo-Confederates, including ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson, made a call for all of their supporters to turn out in response to the Black Lives Matter protest. Williamson warned on his Facebook page in a post on Friday afternoon that the Black Lives Matter protest was “nothing more than another attempt to disrupt the city of Graham and bring more unwanted conflict to our county.” He said he wanted to outnumber the protesters 10 to one, and urged those who wanted to protect the Confederate monument, support the sheriff and ensure that Graham doesn’t change to show up.
Steve Marley, a Burlington resident who has been a frequent presence at rallies in support of Confederate monuments in other counties, posted “A Call to Arms” on the Reopen NC — Alamance County Facebook page warning: “We have known for the last six years that sooner or later, they will be attacking our peaceful town of Graham.” He said, “That time has come, and I’m asking you what will you do — stand or run?”
Neo-Confederates also parsed the state-of-emergency declaration to determine a course of action.
Woody Weaver, a Wake County resident who has displayed the League of the South flag in the past, noted that the declaration prohibited the use of dangerous weapons in the protest area in a series of comments on Facebook under the name Nathan Forrest — a tribute to the Confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan.
“Roll out the trucks,” Weaver advised. “Clearly says no weapons. In your truck is different. Use them like a tank. You can’t get past the barricade. Put it where you can. The nastieees [sic] are sure to follow. Put your trucks in their march. It is over a mile. Ain’t no law says you can’t. Put them in front or behind. They did not want a permit. So, the police don’t have to give them a escort or secure the path.”
No counter-protesters used vehicles to disrupt the march, which began next to a Food Lion in Burlington. At the beginning of the march, Burlington police Lt. Chris Smith informed the marchers that they would be able to take the two eastbound lanes of Harden Street. At the Graham city limits, the Burlington police vehicles peeled off and Graham police took over the police escort.
But Rev. Drumwright said an assistant was arrested while trying to cross a police line to deliver a program for the event to him in downtown Graham. And after the rally, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson personally arrested another a second protester, according to one report.
Near the culmination of the event, Drumwright admonished: “Graham community: I hope you didn’t believe the perceptions there was going to be blood in the streets — on our behalf?”
Counter-protesters incessantly rang a bell in a plaza in the corner of Court Square incessantly, attempting to interrupt the Black Lives Matter rally.
“Even though they’re ringing that bell, we’re here to sound the alarm,” Drumwright said. “It’s time for this monument to come down… Somebody say, ‘Satan, we’re going to tear your kingdom down.’ Racism, we’re going to tear your kingdom down. Hatred, we’re going to tear your kingdom down.”
Drumwright, who grew up in Burlington, is a pastor at the Citadel of Praise & Campus Ministry in Greensboro.
Many of the antiracist demonstrators said they felt that the march was historic for Graham, a city of 13,293 that is the seat of government for Alamance, a county with 169,509 people wedged between Greensboro and Hillsborough on the Interstate 85/40 corridor.
“Take a moment to look around you,” Dejuana Bigelow of Burlington exhorted marchers at the Historical Courthouse in Graham. “This has never, ever happened in Alamance County, in the town of Graham. Look around. It is not just Black people. I see my white friends. I see my Hispanic friends. I see my Asian friends…. Yes, hate is here. Hate has always been here. We didn’t come for that.
“I am proud to be an activist, an organizer in Alamance County,” she continued. “We’ve been praying for this. My grandmother, your grandmother, your grandpa — they all prayed for this.”
Although removing the Confederate monument — erected in 1914 — is one of goals of the protesters, it’s not the only one.
LaShawna Austria of the Saxapahaw Social Justice Exchange noted in an interview that she is part of a recent coalition called the Alamance Agents for Change that has issued 14 demands to county and municipal law enforcement, including changing the law to make all police misconduct a matter of public record; removing officers who are members of “hate groups,” including ACTBAC; banning the use of hogties and chokeholds; and requiring police officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force.
The coalition hasn’t taken an official position on the Confederate monument, but Austria said she wants it taken down.
“We don’t finish our job at removing Confederate monuments; that’s the baseline,” she said. “We need to try to move the needle in the direction of social justice and inclusion. We need to remove the residue of white supremacy. Let’s go deeper and talk about what is really embedded in the system that leads to Black and Brown and poor white folks being on the margin. I see white supremacy as a well-oiled machine. It’s in the DNA of our country.”
The Rev. Randy Orwig, pastor of Elon Community Church United Church of Christ, also addressed local issues in the law enforcement and court system in Alamance County.
Noting in his speech that he had previously lived in Ferguson, Mo., Orwig, who is white, said, “I didn’t know that the police were pulling Black people over for broken taillights, which put a woman in jail, losing her job. Of a courthouse that was too small for all the tickets they wrote. They used a basketball stadium for their court. That is wrong.
“Go to the Alamance [County] Courthouse, and just spend a few minutes, and you’ll see people who are in jail because they can’t afford their bail,” he continued. “The words we need to hear today — we white folk need to no longer say, ‘We don’t know.’ It’s time to start knowing.”
The Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Graham disbanded at about 2 p.m. Some antiracists stayed behind and exchanged taunts with the neo-Confederate counter-protesters. Officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer who were assisting through a mutual aid agreement moved two lines of bicycles to separate the opposing groups.
As the verbal exchanges were becoming more heated, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson crossed the street and talked to Gary Williamson, the founder of ACTBAC. The counter-protesters left soon afterwards.